"If you think our hands are full, you should see our hearts."
I can't help but smile as I look at the Christmas card from the Lonkar family. In it, Gilbert residents Brian and Cherrie hold four giggling children, now ages 4, 3, 2 and 1.
If each child is a gift, then this Christmas, the Lonkar family's blessings are growing.
I first met Cherrie and Brian shortly after they moved into our neighborhood. It wasn't hard to become friends. We shared our faith, a love for music, a zest for life, and a soft spot for children. I was a fairly new mom. And I knew the Lonkars wanted to start a family. The day I came home with my second child, their grinning faces arrived at my doorstep, gift in hand and arms stretched out to hold the baby.
When the couple married in 2004, Cherrie hoped Brian would welcome her idea to adopt. She admits she had a bit of convincing to do.
"He said, ‘Let's have a biological one first.'"
But after several miscarriages and failed fertility treatments, the couple decided to take a break and complete a lifelong, shared goal to travel to Africa on a church mission trip helping children.
Brian's heart softened to the adoption idea while on their trip.
"He said, ‘You're right. There isn't one of them I wouldn't take home,'" Cherrie recalled of their return to the United States.
The Lonkars enrolled in foster-care training hoping to eventually adopt. The day after their license was approved, they received a call: A newborn boy was waiting for a home.
In February 2007, 4-day-old Miles came to them. Less than eight weeks later, they received another call. Aidan joined the family when he was about 3 months old.
Then, came the surprise. Though they had stopped fertility treatments, Cherrie was pregnant. In 2008, they welcomed Luca and finalized Aidan's adoption.
Life kept busy for the family with three kids younger than 2. The couple kept their foster-care license open and a few more children came through their doors for short periods of time.
"But I didn't feel our family was complete," Cherrie said.
The couple turned to prayer. They wanted their family to grow, but they weren't sure which path to take.
Last fall, Cherrie suffered another miscarriage. They shared their prayers with family and friends.
Early in 2010, they were asked if they would foster an infant girl. At first, Cherrie admits, she hesitated. It would mean their house would have four children under 3, three of them with special needs. Brian was starting a new job as an education counselor and the family was in a familiar routine with therapy sessions for the older boys.
But Cherrie's cousin reminded her, "Isn't this what you've prayed for?"
Cherrie and Brian fell in love with the curly haired cherub they renamed Maile.
"Brian is the biggest softie that now wants to adopt everyone," Cherrie said.
Maile came to live with them in April, pink ribbons, bows and all.
This Christmas, the couple will hang one more stocking and make room for one more on the family tree.
Maile's adoption will be finalized on Thursday. It will be their second adoption this year, having finalized Miles' adoption this summer.
Brian smiled. "We'll all be Lonkars for Christmas."
Statewide, adoptions from foster care are rising, according to the Department of Economic Security.
The most recent report on state foster-to-adopt figures shows 1,034 adoptions finalized between Oct. 1, 2009, and March 31, 2010. From Oct. 1, 2008 through March 31, 2009, there were 764.
Sarah Meston, associate director for Mesa's A Place to Call Home, said the agency has completed 36 adoptions since January, including several sibling groups, a jump from last year. More and more people are calling asking about the process.
"We're just celebrating that it is so many," she said.
It takes a lot of patience, Cherrie and Brian said. And in situations with special needs children, it requires an ability to understand the system and become an advocate.
"That's what you spend a lot of your time doing. You have to be prepared to fight for that. Each is unique and some are painfully aware of their circumstance," Cherrie said.
Upstairs in the Lonkar home, Cherrie has created a collage of photos for each of the four kids.
"I'm the only mom who puts up pictures of my kids screaming and pouting," she said looking at them. "I wanted to be a mom for so long, I think all of it is precious."
Brian created a gift for the children also: a song for each one.
He will share Maile's with her when they celebrate with friends and family after their court appearance this week:
"I remember the day, when we got the call... wasn't expecting it at all
And much to my surprise, your face lit up my eyes
You and me were meant to be a family."
Reporter Michelle Reese blogs about the joys and trials of parenting at http://blogs.evtrib.com/evmoms/.